April 23, 2014

Despite loss, Akron Zips still an NCAA tournament threat

keith dambrotAll good things must come to an end eventually. And for the Mid-American Conference’s Akron Zips, that had to mean its 19-game winning streak, the longest of the 2012-13 college basketball season.

The run ended Saturday night at Buffalo, a tough setting in the past for Keith Dambrot’s teams. The Bulls built an early lead and expanded it in the second half, but unlike every game since Dec. 25, there was no miraculous last-minute run for 23-5 UA. The final scoreboard read 81-67 for the Bulls.

For many, the loss was half-disappointing and half-celebration-worthy. Obviously, the streak elevated the national stature of the Zips. They were ranked No. 24 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll last week, the first ranked team in school history. Nearly every major sports outlet was writing about them too — from Sporting News to the front page of USA Today even to ESPN’s Dickie V.

But in a way, the loss was cleansing. There is now no more pressure. The unsung team gets a completely clean slate. And all that matters again are those NCAA tournament hopes.

No MAC team has received an at-large bid to the tournament since Wally Szczerbiak’s Miami team in 1999. In fact, the Redhawks are the only MAC team to ever receive such an entry since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They also accomplished this feat in ’85, ’86 and ’95.

So it’s largely unprecedented for a MAC school to be thinking about the tournament independent of simply winning the MAC championship. The conference simply hasn’t been strong enough as the West Coasts, Horizons, Colonials and A-10′s of the mid-major world to warrant multiple tournament teams. But if any school has as good a shot in the last decade, it’d be these surprising Zips.

A trio of overlooked stars has led the squad all season long. The most heralded is senior center Zeke Marshall (12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 66.0% shooting), a former top 100 high school prospect who shockingly decided to develop his talents under Dambrot’s tutelage in Northeast Ohio. He’s finally starting to blossom into the star many expected to be and is now the MAC’s all-time leader in blocked shots. There also are two other juniors who always seem to play with a chip on their shoulder: by forward Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell (11.2 points, 7.5 rebounds) and point guard Alex Abreu (10.2 points, 5.9 assists).

Going back to the start of the season, Akron actually was picked in the preseason to finish second — in the MAC East. The dominant school of the year was supposed to be the Ohio Bobcats, who of course shocked Michigan in last year’s NCAA tournament and returned the majority of its key players.

But the Zips kept plowing through. And they did so despite actually starting the season at 4-4. There was the tough 4-point overtime loss to Coastal Carolina that began the year. They then suffered another 4-point OT Puerto Rico loss to Oklahoma State (another unheralded team that has been impressive of late). Then, back-to-back losses at Creighton and Detroit all occurred by the middle of December. Hopes weren’t too high yet again for Dambrot’s squad.

Then the run began. It included a stunning 20-point comeback against Buffalo in Akron on Jan. 26. Also in the mix were two-double-digit comebacks against the Bobcats, on Feb. 2 in Akron and then just last Wednesday in Athens. With the wins, came all the national attention that always happens to a potential Cinderella story.

But now with Saturday’s loss in hand, let’s take a look at what some most recent bracket math has to say about these Zips, who now rank No. 46 in the RPI and No. 53 according to Ken Pomeroy’s vaunted efficiency formulas:

Akron Zips Bracket Links

According to Joe Lunardi’s most recent full update on Friday, March 1, prior to the Zips loss, he had then as No. 44 on his complete S-Curve. The cut-off line for at-large teams was No. 51 Ole Miss. So in less jargon, Akron was exactly 7 spaces above where they would have to be as a non-automatic qualifier via leading their conference.

Jerry Palm’s bracket projections also had UA a few spaces above the final line. In his Friday bracket, the Zips are a No. 12 seed, with fellow No. 12 seeds Kentucky/Villanova and No. 13 seeds Wichita State/Iowa State heading to Dayton for the First Four. So similarly, Akron was about 4-6 spaces above where they needed to be.

BracketVille’s S-Curve from Saturday afternoon has Akron at No. 44 with the cut-off line of Kentucky at No. 50. The most favorable ranking I saw on the Web was the No. 36 spot from TeamRankings, well above the needed spot, with the site going the extra mile to say Akron has an 89% chance of making the tournament overall.

So, in a nutshell, it’s obvious that yesterday’s loss to Buffalo will move UA down in these S-Curves at least a few spaces. They’re likely right on the cusp of the at-large line now. But there still remain three games on the docket: Tuesday at home against Miami, Friday at home against Kent State, and then the MAC tournament, which will begin for Akron with the semifinals on Friday, March 15.

Assuming a clean slate through to the finals and a possible rematch loss against the Ohio Bobcats, it’s likely that a 50-50 chance or better will remain for Akron. Fortunately, as was the case on Saturday in college basketball, other bubble teams will continue to lose. So the argument will be the following: Should a 6-loss MAC team receive the conference’s first at-large bid in 14 years, or will the selection committee stick with a double-digit loss school from a major conference?

It’s undoubtedly true that most NCAA tournament schools wouldn’t want to willingly face the Zips. As was mentioned in the Sporting News article, they’re the perfect kind of sleeper: Major-conference size, gritty leadership and a coach that’s seen his fair share of intimidating situations. They’ve also been there before — notably in 2009 and 2011.

We’ll find out more about the Zips’ fortune very shortly, with Selection Sunday now exactly two weeks away. I’ll be watching close to hope that no matter what, UA receives its deserving next chance to shine on the national stage..

Photo: Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal

  • 5KMD

    Go Bobcats! Hope it’s round 3 for OHIO and Akron in the MAC final.

  • james

    That 19-game streak was excellent but, as you have said, all
    good things DO come to an end eventually; I’m pulling for Akron and Ohio to
    meet 3rd round also, and hope this loss gives them extra motivation to tighten
    up their game and ball! I don’t get to see too many Akron games living
    here in Colorado, but when I get home from, or before I leave for my job at
    DISH I turn on the DISH Game Finder app. It finds all the games on TV in
    a matter of seconds, and with the tournament just around the corner, I hope I
    get to see a few more. Game Finder also lets me set reminders and
    recordings for upcoming games, so I actually get to enjoy the games, rather
    than having to spend endless amounts of time looking for games on the program
    guide!

  • AkronZipsHoops

    Go zips!